The Horizon of Care: how to maximize people’s engagement with the issues you care about
How do we enable, encourage, and empower people to engage with a cause? That for me is the fundamental wicked problem we face as a world. I say that because unless we can crack it, there is no point in even attempting to solve any other problem. Because any solution we find will never be implemented.
I’ve written about this at length in my book Our Dreams Make Different Shapes. There I tackle what I call “the Cassandra Curse.” That is, the fact that people with world-changing ideas will, like Cassandra, be doomed never to be listened to.
What I want to outline very briefly is a formal way of framing the problem. I want to suggest a structure for assessing how likely people are to engage with a cause, or a solution. And I want to suggest that structure itself suggests the mechanism by which we can make people more likely to engage with the causes we want them to.
In short, what I propose is this:
A person’s likelihood of engaging with a problem can be gauged by two things:
- The feeling of urgency that issue evokes in them.
- The extent to which they feel they have any power to change anything related to that issue.
These two things are determined by two factors:
- A person’s closeness in time to an issue
- A person’s closeness in space to a problem
The urgency and power which people feel in relation to an issue decrease as they become less close to the problem in time or space.
If we plot each of these points, we end up with a line. I call this the “horizon of care” or, more colloquially, the “how many fucks line.” Beneath that line is a volume that represents the space in which someone will be open to engagement with an issue. If an issue is above the line, that means the person simply won’t have the necessary urgency or feeling of empowerment to engage.
Thought of like that, we see two things.
First, this explains why people seem to focus their energies on problems “close to home.” It is why shrewd but nefarious actors might create a narrative of in-groups and out-groups in order to increase people’s engagement.
Second, there are clearly some other ways of making people more likely to support a cause — even if it is a distant one. We can use rhetoric to increase the sense of urgency they feel, and we can use training and education to increase the sense of empoweredness they feel. These will raise the whole line, so that some more distant problems fall underneath it.
But what I want to suggest is that the most important thing of all is the shape of the line. The rate at which feelings urgency and power decrease as the issue becomes more distant. The best way to increase engagement with causes that seem relatively distant(ish) in time (climate change) and space (famine) would be to make the horizon of care degrade much more slowly.
I want to suggest that this is, in fact, possible. Because there is a function that determines the rate at which the horizon of care diminishes. And that function is a person’s “available bandwidth” — the amount of resources they have available to them to devote to problem solving. I recommend everyone read Mullainathan and Shafir’s excellent book Scarcity for more on the financial aspect of bandwidth. But I want to suggest three key elements that contribute to bandwidth.
The higher the amount of each of these a person has, the less of their resources they will have to dedicate to simply living, and the more bandwidth they will have available for engaging with and solving problems.
So, if you want people to engage with your distant problem, yes educate them and give them the skills they need; yes, tell stories effectively; but you will hit the jackpot if you combine these with increasing their available bandwidth, so that when they hear your story they have the resources they need to engage fully with it. (And universal basic income is a really good placeto start).